by Barbara Evers
Heather shivered from the cold as she juggled Mandy in her arms and attempted to unlock the trailer’s door. Behind her, her husband, Jonah, stomped his feet on the concrete step, his not-so-subtle way of urging her to hurry. The door swung open, and she scurried inside the small entryway.
“Brrr, it’s cold out there.” She rubbed chilly noses with her daughter before setting her down.
“Pretty.” Mandy’s chubby fingers pointed toward the Christmas tree. At fourteen months, the child loved this sparkly addition to their home, staring enthralled at it for long periods of time.
The zipper on the toddler’s pink, quilted coat snagged, but Heather finally got it moving and slipped the coat off the child’s shoulders.
“Pretty,” Mandy said again, but now she pointed at the light on an end table next to their second-hand couch.
Heather glanced up and gasped. A tiny army of bugs streamed up the lamp’s base, headed toward the lightbulb. “Jonah, look.”
Her husband shook out his coat and turned toward her. “What?” his tone still sharp with impatience. The frown creasing his brow shifted toward curiosity, then disgust. “What’s that?”
Shuddering with a different chill, Mandy shook her head.
Hundreds of tiny insects streamed in single file lines toward every light in the room. As the baby toddled toward the infantry lines, Heather grabbed her up and rushed down the hallway, checking for more bugs as she went. She flicked on the nursery light and breathed a sigh of relief to find the room bug free.
“Here, play with MoMo.” She plopped the baby in her crib and handed her a stuffed turtle.
The child squealed and rolled onto her back gazing at the toy with almost as much fascination as she’d given the tree.
“I think they’re only in here,” Heather said as she returned to Jonah.
He had a large plastic cup and was scooping the bugs up and throwing them outside into the winter’s cold, his breath fogging under the outdoor light. “What are these things? They’re creepy looking.”
Grabbing another cup, Heather crept toward one of the lights. The skinny front bodies and bulbous rears of the insects streamed upward in a straight line, their triangular heads hovering over front appendages bent as if in prayer. “Oh my gosh. Jonah, they’re praying mantis. I’ve never seen them so small.”
This insect always gave her the willies with its big eyes and weird body. In high school, Mr. Parks, the biology teacher, showed them a video of the females devouring their mates during mating. The girls had gagged and giggled while the boys snorted at the ridiculous idea.
“Heather. Move. Don’t just stand there.” Jonah dumped another batch out the door.
As Jonah stomped back into the room, Heather crept toward the slow-moving line of infestation, extended her arm and scooped up several, shrieking and jumping back when some fell to the floor.
“There must be a hundred of them,” Jonah said dumping more out the front door. “Where did they come from?”
Heather shook her cup out the door. “I don’t know. They’re must be an egg sac somewhere.”
After several retrieval-and-dump sessions, a sick memory hit Heather. She edged closer to the Christmas tree and peered into the branches. A brown sac the size of an early pinecone hung from one of the cedar’s limbs. A few of the insects dangled from the casing. “Remember that growth I told you about on the tree? The one you said was part of the branch? It must’ve been the egg sac.” She shivered again. “I told you we should have bought a tree.”
“No way I’m spending eighty dollars when there’s a forest behind us,” Jonah said, dumping another cup of insects out the door.
“Except you didn’t get it from the forest, did you?” Heather couldn’t hide the sharp note in her voice at that memory. She shook another cupful of bugs out the door.
At least, Jonah had the decency to look ashamed this time. “Yeah. I probably shouldn’t have cut down one of Rory and Jewel’s trees. I don’t think they’ve noticed yet.”
More bugs spilled from Heather’s cup into the cold outdoors. “Seriously? Of course, they’ve noticed. It just hasn’t occurred to them to look here. They probably expect some strangers stole their tree in the middle of the night. Not you, in broad daylight. I can’t even invite them to our Christmas party, now.”
“What’s the matter? Can’t handle it when you’re not the one with the ax?”
She gasped at his accusation. He knew how much that mistake had cost her. How dare he? She turned her back and muttered under her breath, “Maybe the praying mantis has it right.”
When Jonah had dragged the cedar tree home minutes after heading into the woods to “find a tree the way our forefathers did,” she’d questioned the short time it took him to return. Anger over his lazy theft steamed her after he laughed and told her where he got it. Now, she fought the urge to toss the beautiful, infested tree and Jonah out the door.
The only thing keeping her from doing just that was the horrid memory of another cedar tree. One that changed her life forever. Was this nature’s form of justice?
It had happened on a cold day like today, but in daylight, not long after school let out for the Christmas holidays. Her sister, Lexie, had that look about her. The one that said she was up to something. When the doorbell rang and Amber, Lexie’s best friend, walked in wearing the same expression, Heather knew she needed to stop them from making a crazy mistake.
Most of the time, the three of them did stuff together, but that day neither girl invited her.
“Where are you going?” she’d asked as Lexie pushed past her, shoving her arms into her overcoat.
Heather grabbed her coat and followed them to the driveway. “Where are we going?”
Amber’s hand hovered over the car’s door handle. Lexie’s did too. They shared a look over the top of the car that told Heather they wanted to be out of there fast, away from her suspicions.
Amber came up with the wildest schemes. Normally, Heather squashed them before her kid sister got into trouble. Today, it appeared she’d intervened just in time.
“We’re running an errand for Amber’s mom. That’s all. Boring stuff.” Lexie had turned and leaned against the car in a stance of nonchalance.
Warning bells rang in Heather’s brain. They looked too calm, too cool to be telling the truth. Just moments ago, they’d rushed out of the house like two pups caught digging through the trashcan.
She wasn’t stupid.
“I’m bored,” she said. “I’ll come with you.”
Another glance flashed between the two conspirators. Amber shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Relieved, Heather climbed in the back seat of the blue Buick Regal. “Where’s your car?” Normally, Amber turned her nose up at her mother’s ancient Buick.
Amber pulled out of the driveway. “Mom wanted me to take hers. The trunk has more room.”
“Trunk? What are you picking up?”
The girls snorted.
Lexie turned her face away to look out the window. “Her mom wants a cedar tree for Christmas.”
“I found the perfect one,” Amber said.
The girls snorted, again.
“What’s funny about that?’ Heather eased forward trying to catch Amber’s gaze in the rearview mirror.
“Remember, you asked to come,” Amber said as she returned Heather’s look.
Unease crawled up Heather’s spine. “Why all the secrecy?”
Her sister twisted in the seat and gave her a grimace of a grin. “You’ll see.”
What was she missing? Heather flopped back in the seat, arms crossed. Unable to process schemes at Amber’s lightning rates, she could only imagine. Giving up, she leaned forward, again. “Look you two. Whatever you’ve got planned, let me know before you get us all into trouble.”
“Too late,” Amber sang as she pulled into the Lakeside Park. “Either stay quiet or help us. You’re not changing our minds.”
“Why are you turning here?”
Neither girl answered. At a slow speed, Amber guided the car around the loop of the deserted parking area, Lexie leaning forward to search out the window. In summer, huge crowds enjoyed the park, but on a cold day in December, the place was deserted.
Heather followed Lexie’s gaze, searching out the window, trying to guess what her sister was looking for.
She sighed in relief when Amber swung the car around the loop in the parking lot and started toward the exit. They were messing with her.
Then, Amber stopped the car beside three cedar trees lining the entrance to the park. The main road, a two-lane highway, ran a few hundred yards to their right. In plain view. Lexie and Amber hopped out of the car.
“You coming?” Lexie asked while Amber popped the trunk. She walked around the car, an ax in her hands.
They wouldn’t, would they?
Heather jumped out of the car and rounded the rear in pursuit of Amber. “Are you crazy? This is park land. You could screw up your future. What about your scholarship?”
Running her hand along the ax’s handle, Amber smiled. “Yours too…if we get caught.” She pointed the head of the ax at Heather. “You’re the lookout.”
Not only did Amber have a tennis scholarship with State next year, but Heather had one for softball and academics. She needed both or else she’d never manage medical school. Cutting down the park’s tree had to violate all sorts of ethics requirements. Not to mention the law.
Convinced they wouldn’t go through with it, Heather turned back to the car.
She spun around. The cedar’s branches shook from the lopsided blow.
Amber shoved the bottom limbs up, beckoning to Lexie. “Hold these branches out of my way.”
Heather gulped at the raw scar on the tree’s trunk and rushed around the car, swiping at her sister’s willing hands. “She’ll chop your hands off. Let go.”
The ax swung again, a near miss of branches, Lexie, and most of the tree. Another small scar appeared in the bark to the left of the first one.
Heather crossed her arms. “You don’t even know how to use an ax. Just stop.”
Amber straightened and glared at Heather. “You might want to make sure we don’t get company. Our futures are at stake, remember?” She wiped her nose on her sleeve, then repositioned herself. She took another swing.
As much as Heather hated to admit it, Amber was right. If they got caught, no one would ask whether she agreed to the plan or not. Lexie might tell the truth, but Amber wouldn’t.
The sound of an approaching car on the highway sent ripples of terror down her spine. Heather ducked behind the car. “Get down.”
The car drove by in a blur, never slowing.
Amber took another wild swing.
Sick resignation pooled in Heather’s belly. The only way out of this was to finish and clear out before someone discovered them. She rounded the car, dodged another failed swing, then grabbed the ax.
Heather pointed it at Lexie. “You keep watch.” She turned to Amber. “You’d think a tennis player would know how to swing an ax. Just stay back.”
The forest service had planted the trees over the summer, so the young tree’s trunk wasn’t thick yet. After a few more direct hits, it collapsed sideways with a loud crack, the branches rustling as they tumbled.
She hefted the ax over her shoulder. “Hurry up and get it in the car.”
Relief washed over Heather in a wave of warmth that shifted to icy cold when a hiker emerged from the wooded area between them and the lake.
Good-bye scholarship. Hello community college.
She’d been the one holding the ax, so Heather got the worst of it. Lexie, at sixteen, got a slap on the wrist by the judge. Amber lost her scholarship, but her parents could afford State. She didn’t suffer the same consequences as Heather. Or problems with her conscience, either.
Heather’s guilt over that tree kept her from laying into Jonah about the one he stole from the neighbors. He knew, and his thoughtless betrayal hurt.
The tree did fill the trailer with a warm, Christmassy scent, and the colorful lights brightened up their dreary home. Made it cheerful. Almost.
At the door, she paused. They’d thrown most of the bugs into the yard. A few lay on the concrete step, their appendages waving a weak farewell to their short life. They’d killed them. Just like she’d killed that tree years ago. Just like Jonah killed the neighbor’s tree.
Three praying mantes crawled around the bottom of the cup in her hand. She turned around and headed for the kitchen.
Mr. Parker, her high school biology teacher might welcome some new specimens for his lab. Maybe he’d forgive her for destroying his trust in her. She could still see the injured look in his eyes. Hear his words, “I thought you were smarter than that.”
As for the cedars…
They’d gotten their revenge.
She stared out at the cold night, snow beginning to fall. A dish best served cold. Nature always won in the end, didn’t it?
Barbara V. Evers began storytelling at age four. She couldn’t read, yet, so she roped others into taking dictation. She works as a professional trainer and freelance editor. In her spare time, she pursues her first passion-writing. She’s an award-winning author and a Pushcart Prie nominee whos short stories and essays have appeared in the best-selling anthology, Child of my Child: Poems and Stories for Grandparents, The Petigru Review, the moonshine review, and Stupefying Stories. In addition, she contributes to several blogs, including two of her own. Barbara lives in Greer with two of her grandchildren, her husband, Bruce, and a rescue dog named Roxy.